By James M. Dorsey
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Israel’s options are central to discussions about the day after the guns fall silent in Gaza. Absent from the debate is what Palestinians want.
Also absent is any discussion of funding for Gaza’s reconstruction, although the assumption is that oil-rich Gulf states will step up to the plate.
The significance of Palestinians’ wants is magnified by the fact that Israel has no good options, particularly if it fails to or cannot destroy Hamas’ political and military infrastructure.
While none of the options hold out the prospect of Palestinian elections, some have been already been rejected by Palestinians and Arab states; others could be acceptable to Palestinians on an interim basis.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to Israel and the Middle East on Friday to discuss the objectives and conduct of Israel’s assault on Gaza, containing the Gaza war, the rescue of hostages held in Gaza by Hamas and other groups, and potential arrangements for the day after.
Palestinian acceptance of those arrangements is key to the stability and sustainability of any post-war structure, even if it is temporary.
A 10-page concept paper dated October 13 and prepared by Israel’s intelligence ministry listed three options under discussion.
Despite its labelling, the ministry is not a decision-making body, even if the options are in line with statements by senior Israeli officials and various segments of the Israeli public, and one was reportedly adopted in Israeli lobbying efforts.
Moreover, the ministry does not control Israel’s intelligence services that report to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or the military command.
The concept’s three problematic options include:
- The creation of a homegrown Palestinian administration in Gaza that has no links with Hamas and/or other Palestinian militants.
No Palestinian is likely to offer himself forward as willing to take over on the back of Israeli tanks, even though Abu Dhabi-based Mohammed Dahlan, a controversial former Palestinian Gaza security chief with close ties to the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel, appeared to leave the door open to his possible return to the Strip.
Without taking Mr. Dahlan’s potential ambitions into account, the paper described the option of a homegrown administration as the “most dangerous alternative” because it could “lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state,” or new, more militant groups.
- The return to Gaza of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank-based Palestine Authority. Dominated by Al Fatah, Hamas’ archrival, the Authority was expelled from Gaza in 2007 by Hamas, a year after the group won Palestinians’ last election.
Like the first option, the paper counselled against a return of the Authority, which is deeply unpopular on the West Bank, because it would constitute “an unprecedented victory of the Palestinian national movement, a victory that will claim the lives of thousands of Israeli civilians and soldiers and does not safeguard Israel’s security.”
In addition, the Authority would likely reject taking charge of Gaza unless its mandate was linked to a definitive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
An Israeli foreign ministry’s options paper suggested that doubts about the Authority and the Authority’s concerns could be addressed by a multinational force and a US-led contact group that would help the Authority govern the Strip.
Surprisingly, to make this work, the paper, drafted by the ministry’s policy planning department, appears to suggest a dramatic revision of Israeli policy.
Less surprisingly, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen ignored the paper that argues the government would have to drop its efforts to separate Gaza from the West Bank and embrace a two-state solution, involving the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
In an interview with The New Yorker, political scientist Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority official, said that “Hamas is getting more popular in the West Bank because it is perceived to be standing up to the oppressive Israeli occupation, and because of the brutal retaliation by Israel.”
Mr. Khatib said many Palestinians see Hamas’ October 7 attack against Israel in which some 1,400, mostly civilian, Israelis were brutally killed, and more than 300 others kidnapped as retribution for decades of “piecemeal repression,” including the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and increased settler violence against Palestinians.
A poll conducted by the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research in Gaza and the West Bank in September suggested that exiled Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would rout by a large margin Mr. Abbas and Marwan Barghouti, a popular imprisoned Al-Fatah leader convicted in Israel on murder charges, in an election.
Yet, when asked who Gazans would want to see as the candidate to succeed Mr. Abbas, Mr. Haniyeh and Mr. Barghouti were neck-to-neck at 24 versus 23 per cent.
Mr. Barghouti is widely seen as a potential successor to 87-year old Mr. Abbas if Israel releases him.
Even so, 37 per cent described Hamas as the “most deserving” representative of the Palestinians compared to 26 per cent who attributed that accolade to Al-Fatah.
Gazan attitudes towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeared uncompromising with 75 per cent rejecting a one-state solution in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians enjoy equal rights and 65 per cent opposing a two-state solution.
Moreover, 51 per cent of Gazans and 54 per cent of West Bankers favoured armed struggle rather than peaceful protest or negotiations to break the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sixty-seven per cent supported attacks on Israeli civilians in Israel.
While Israelis hardliners will see the poll as confirmation of their assertion that Gaza equals Hamas and justification of the indiscriminate bombing of the Strip, more moderate voices caution that Israeli policy has created a stark choice.
“Very soon Israelis will have to decide: either a violent settler state which will drain lives and finance, or a functioning society with clear borders. On Oct 7 we saw the result of the former,” tweeted journalist Etan Nechin.
- The intelligence ministry’s favoured and most controversial option involves the permanent transfer of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which has been denounced by Palestinians and rejected by Egypt as a third ethnic cleansing reminiscent of the 1948 and 1967 expulsions and displacements of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
Despite Mr. Netanyahu’s insistence that the intelligence ministry’s proposal “>is not being considered by the government, the notion of a transfer has been echoed in statements by senior Israeli officials and segments of the public
Furthermore, Czech and Austrian leaders privately put forward, at Mr. Netanyahu’s behest, the idea of Egypt absorbing Gazan Palestinians in exchange for the cancellation of the country’s US$165 billion foreign debt in discussions on the sidelines of last month’s European summit. Germany, France, and Britain rejected the proposition.
Other proposals emerging in the debate about the day after the Gazan war include:
- Depopulating northern Gaza by pushing all the Strip’s residents into the southern half of the territory so that Israel can create an uninhabited buffer zone.
Leaving aside legal and moral implications, the problem with this proposition is that it would aggravate conditions for Palestinians already living in one of the world’s most densely populated territories in an even tighter space that would retain a border with Israel. As a result, it would likely perpetuate rather than reduce Israeli perceptions of the Gaza security threat.
- Handing Gaza over to an Arab peacekeeping force.
While Arab states may be tempted to return Gaza to Arab control, like the Palestine Authority, they are unlikely to want to shoulder responsibility on the back of Israeli tanks without solid indications that the force’s presence would be linked to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In addition, many Palestinians feel abandoned as much by Arab states as they do by the rest of the international community.
Moreover, Arab condemnations of the Israeli assault on Gaza notwithstanding, Arab states appear in no rush to be seen as forcefully striving to end the carnage. The Arab League, which groups the world’s 22 Arab states, has scheduled a meeting to discuss the Gaza crisis for November 11 rather than immediately.
Arab states appear to either hope Israel will bow to international pressure by then, even though there is no indication that is likely, or privately want to see Israel successfully eradicate Hamas.
Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have cracked down on Hamas in the past. They see Hamas’ survival as potentially emboldening other militants such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as legitimising Iranian support for non-state allies.
At the bottom line, a return to Gaza of the Palestine Authority buffeted by a multi-national force that includes an Arab contingent, may be the most logical post-war scenario.
Expecting that Mr. Netanyahu’s days may be numbered with many Israelis blaming the prime minister for the Israeli intelligence and military fiasco that enabled the October 7 Hamas attack, many hope that his political demise would open the door to a temporary transfer of control of Gaza linked to a concerted effort to end the conflict.
That may be a tall order with emotions on both sides of the divide making discussion of peace and a buy-in from Palestinians and Israelis unlikely any time soon, if not impossible. It’s an even taller order given doubts that a two-state solution is still viable, leaving a one-state approach as the only option.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Honorary Fellow at Singapore’s Middle East Institute-NUS, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.